28 Roe Street, Belfast: That's Mrs Murphy crossing the road to her house. The neighbours are long gone but, despite all the attacks, she and Bernard aren't shifting. Steve Boggan reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Bernard Murphy cannot remember the date, but he knows it was about 3am one morning in 1988 that the first petrol bomb set fire to his back door. There was a smashing of glass and a brightness and a smell that got him out of bed.

'The flames were up the door,' he said. 'If I hadn't woken up, it could have killed us.' Bernard's 68-year-old wife, Sue, is still surprised she was asleep when the fire-bombers hit. She hardly ever sleeps.

Mrs Murphy has good reason for not sleeping. Few would rest easy in 28 Roe Street, the only house in a road that no longer really exists, a road on the front line dividing Catholics and Protestants in the Oldpark district of north Belfast.

Number 28, a three-storey, four-bedroomed house, stands alone on the Catholic side of the wall - a 15ft corrugated skirt of a yellow bullet-proof material. The property's toughened glass windows are protected by padlocked steel grilles. Either side of the house are two 7ft walls, one topped with barbed wire, the other with an extra 5ft of corrugated plastic. Between these and the house are padlocked steel gates.

At the back of number 28 is the peace wall itself, except here it has been heightened to protect the Murphys. There is a neat, pretty garden and a greenhouse with a steel mesh canopy, protection against the stones that fly over the wall almost every day. And on the back door, there are now two sections of painted steel in case another fire bomb should hit.

Tourists sweeping past on the guided tours given by Belfast taxi drivers would be forgiven for thinking that Mr and Mrs Murphy were making a defiant stance, the last Catholics to leave the front line. But they would be quite wrong.

The Murphys are not crusaders. They still speak highly of the Protestant neighbours they had when Roe Street was a real community some 15 years ago. They blame none of their problems on bigotry but on straightforward vandalism and administrative stupidity. It isn't the politics of religion that has left them stuck in the middle of nowhere.

When they bought No 28 in 1956, the area was mixed. Roe Street was smartly cobbled, with brightly painted terraced houses. Families from both sides of the religious divide lived here.

By the mid-Eighties, however, Roe Street and nearby Manor Street had become sectarian hot-spots. There was violence and intimidation and rioting. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive began offering families money to move away and when they did, it demolished their homes.

Most people, who were in rented accommodation, welcomed this scorched-earth policy, but those who had bought their homes, like the Murphys, were in for a shock. The amount of compensation offered by the Housing Executive was based on an assessment of a property's worth that took location into account.

They offered us pounds 3,000 at first and we told them what they could do with it,' said Mr Murphy, a retired carpenter in his seventies. 'Their last offer was pounds 5,000 but we had to reject it; we were both retired and we have only a small pension, so how could we buy something else? We had no choice but to stay here.

'At first, we had nothing on the windows and they were smashed over and over again. The Northern Ireland Office put in toughened glass and then they said we should cover them with grilles. I didn't want to at first because I didn't want to live behind a barricade, but the police said we should - front and back.'

The couple's request for pounds 20,000 to compensate them for the loss of their home was rejected, a decision that now looks like a false economy. The cost to the taxpayer of restoring the gable ends of the house, after demolition of those on either side, was pounds 12,500, and the Northern Ireland Office says it has since spent pounds 5,000 on security.

The Housing Executive said it would try to re-house the Murphys, but Mrs Murphy doubted she and her husband could afford to pay rent, and they were not entitled to Income Support. A Housing Executive spokeswoman said she knew nothing of the fear in which the couple has been living.

'We won't speak ill of either side because we don't dare offend anyone,' said Mr Murphy. 'We just keep our heads down and try to get by day to day. We have been petrol bombed three times and they throw rocks at our house almost every day.

'But there are other problems, too. We can't even get our mail delivered because they took the name off the street. We get letters weeks late with all kinds of writing on them asking where this place is. We even get some after a while marked 'DAL' That stands for Dog at Large, but we haven't got a dog. It's just an excuse because our street doesn't exist any more.'

Mrs Murphy, who suffers from high blood pressure, anaemia and back problems, remains stoical. The couple refuse to blame either Protestants or Catholics for their predicament, a stance in which fear must inevitably play a part.

'We got a letter once from a student in New York saying he had heard of our house and congratulating us on our bravery,' said Mrs Murphy. 'We just thought 'If only he knew'. This has nothing to do with bravery. We are stuck here. I get very very frightened and I can't sleep any more.

'I don't go out at night. Kids throw stones from both sides, they shout and light bonfires. I'm not scared every day, but you don't know what's going to happen next.'

The violence aimed at their home continues but the petrol bomb attacks appear to have stopped. One hit the back door, one a gable end and a third the couple's garden wall. In the garden, darkened by the peace wall, is a garage built by Mr Murphy. The lawn is neatly clipped and the borders well tended.

Mr Murphy produced a dustbin filled with the rocks collected each day from the lawn and thrown, he said, by youths rather than politically motivated adults. 'One of these just missed me the other week.' Mrs Murphy said she no longer hangs out washing or sits in her garden.

Inside the house, everything is neat and clean. 'That fitted kitchen, that cost us more than the pounds 3,000 they were offering,' said Mrs Murphy. Upstairs are a number of smart bedrooms; the ones at the rear have a view over the wall to the Protestant estate. Most of the houses there look new, built within the past 20 years, but many are boarded up. A Union flag flies high enough for the Murphys to see.

But even on the Catholic side, there is no escape from the misery. Outside the Murphys' front door, flies hover around rubbish dumped on wasteground where houses used to stand. At night, the Murphys see rats in the glow of bonfires lit by noisy children.

Around this wasteground are ugly boulders, dropped to prevent people from driving or parking there. But they also act as a platform from which children can throw stones at the armoured patrols from the nearby Girdwood Barracks.

'The kids miss and their stones hit our door and windows, which is why there are grilles on this side, too,' said Mr Murphy. 'They threw paint once, missed the soldiers and hit the front of the house. I couldn't just leave it there and I couldn't just paint over the bit where it hit, so I got my ladder out and painted the whole of the front of the house a sort of brick colour.

'I wanted the place to look clean and tidy.'

(Photographs omitted)